Filmmakers have long been fascinated with the idea of hit men, or professional killers, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of films that feature professional assassins as either villains or heroes. Not surprisingly, many of these films have been dismissed by critics as forgettable action flicks that use hit men characters as an excuse for mindless violence.
On the other hand, there have also been many critically acclaimed films that have portrayed hit men in interesting ways. Since there are so many films featuring hit men, the movies we chose to highlight were selected on the basis of personal taste. However, each of the films we included on this list has a “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Here are 10 of the most critically acclaimed movies about hit men, listed in order of critical rankings, from lowest to highest.
10. Road to Perdition (2002)
While the amiable Tom Hanks is probably not the first name that would pop in your head if you were casting the part of a hit man, the Academy Award-winning actor turned in a critically acclaimed performance in this film, based on a graphic novel of the same name. In the movie, Hanks plays Michael Sullivan Sr., a Depression-era hit man who works for an Irish mob boss. Sullivan is a conflicted character who tries to shield his young son from his violent duties as a hit man while seeking vengeance against a gangster that killed the rest of his family.
Besides Hanks, the film also stars Jude Law, Daniel Craig, and Paul Newman in what turned out to be his final movie role. Road to Perdition currently has an 81 percent “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
9. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed this movie about a mysterious pigeon-tending hit man known only as “Ghost Dog” (Forest Whitaker). Ghost Dog performs assassinations at the behest of the Italian mafia while abiding by a strict code of moral conduct based on the philosophies of Japan’s samurai class.
While this film bears Jarmusch’s unmistakable stamp of quirky surrealism, many critics have noted the similarities between Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s seminal hit man movie Le Samouraï. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai received mostly positive reviews from the critics and currently has an 82 percent “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
8. In Bruges (2008)
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, this film’s darkly comic and highly quotable dialogue garnered the director an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Original Screenplay. In Bruges stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two bickering hit men hiding out in Bruges, Belgium, as they wait for instructions from their employer (Ralph Fiennes).
While Ray (Farrell) is haunted by a horrible mistake he made on his last job, Ken (Gleeson) enjoys the sights of the historic city. As the hit men travel around Bruges, they encounter medieval art, a Russian arms dealer, and a cocaine-addled little person. In Bruges was hailed by most critics and the film currently has an 82 percent “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
7. The Memory of a Killer aka The Alzheimer Case (2003)
With a story that revolves around a memory-impaired killer who has Alzheimer’s disease, this Dutch-language film puts a unique twist on the usual hit man story. In the film, hit man Angelo Ledda (Jan Decleir) reluctantly agrees to do one last killing before his retirement. However, after discovering that one of his targets is an exploited child, Ledda refuses to complete the hit. Unfortunately, his employers hire another killer who finishes the job.
Enraged by the child’s murder, Ledda turns against his employers and races to eliminate them all before his condition makes him forget his mission of vengeance. The Memory of a Killer won numerous awards at film festivals around the world, and the movie currently has an 84 percent “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
6. Collateral (2004)
This Michael Mann-directed thriller features strong performances from Tom Cruise as a cold-blooded hit man and Jamie Foxx as his reluctant driver. Collateral also garnered two Academy Award nominations, including one for Jamie Foxx in the category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.
In the film, Vincent (Cruise) forces Max (Foxx) to drive him around Los Angeles as he completes various contract killings. Besides Cruise and Foxx, Collateral also stars Jada Pinkett Smith as a prosecutor, Mark Ruffalo as a police detective, and Javier Bardem as a drug lord. Collateral currently has an 86 percent “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
5. Nikita aka La Femme Nikita (1990)
French director and writer Luc Besson explores how killers are created in this film that traces the evolution of a young woman from drug-addicted thief to skilled assassin. Anne Parillaud plays Nikita, a junkie who is forcibly enrolled in a secret government program that trains her to kill enemies of the state. Nikita currently has an 88 percent “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
Besides spawning many derivative works — including an American movie remake and multiple television series — Nikita is also notable for introducing Jean Reno as a sunglasses-wearing assassin. Reno played a similarly dressed hit man character in Besson’s 1994 film Léon: The Professional.
4. Looper (2012)
This science fiction-action film introduces several twists to the hit man genre by mixing time travel and a paradoxical contract on an assassin’s own life. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, Looper stars Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the older and younger versions, respectively, of a hit man named Joe.
In the film, criminal syndicates based in the future send victims into the past to be executed by hit men known as “loopers.” Although the loopers are well compensated for their grisly work, they must eventually “close the loop” by executing their future selves. Things get complicated when Joe’s time-traveling future self manages to escape the younger Joe’s attempt to kill him. Critics at Rotten Tomatoes gave Looper a 93 percent “Certified Fresh” rating and described the film as “an uncommonly smart, bravely original blend of futuristic sci-fi and good old-fashioned action.”
3. Pulp Fiction (1994)
It is hard to overstate the importance of director Quentin Tarantino’s seminal neo-noir film. Besides influencing a generation of filmmakers, Pulp Fiction also provided two of the most memorable hit men characters ever portrayed onscreen.
In the film, hit men Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel Jackson) perform murders at the behest of crime boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). However, despite their bloody shenanigans, the hit men manage to come across as likable characters due to their rambling discussions that cover everything from the nature of miracles to the French names for American fast food items. Pulp Fiction won a well-deserved Academy Award in the category of Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, and the film currently has a 94 percent “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The fraternal directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen created one of the most chilling portrayals of a hit man ever seen onscreen with this film based on a Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. In the film, coin-flipping hit man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) pursues Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a welder who absconded with millions of dollars that he found at the site of a botched drug deal. Unlike the personable hit men portrayed in Pulp Fiction, Anton is an utterly emotionless killer who seems to be unstoppable.
No Country for Old Men was hailed by critics as a masterpiece, and the film won four Academy Awards, including a Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar for Bardem. Not surprisingly, the critics at Rotten Tomatoes have given the film a 94 percent “Certified Fresh” rating.
1. In the Line of Fire (1993)
Topping our list of critically acclaimed movies about hit men is this Wolfgang Petersen-directed thriller starring John Malkovich and Clint Eastwood. In the film, former CIA hit man Mitch Leary (Malkovich) plans to assassinate the president of the United States using a homemade gun made from composite materials. As he plots the assassination, Leary plays a cat-and-mouse game with Frank Horrigan (Eastwood), an aging Secret Service agent who was left embittered by his failure to stop the Kennedy assassination.
In the Line of Fire garnered three Academy Award nominations, including a Best Actor in a Supporting Role nod for Malkovich. The film has maintained its status over the years and currently has a 95 percent “Certified Fresh” rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
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